On 17 December, the US and Cuban presidents announced the beginning of a new relationship between those countries, including the restoration of diplomatic relations, the easing of financial and travel restrictions imposed by the US and a prison swap which saw Gerardo Hernández, Antonio Guerrero and Ramón Labañino - of the Cuban Five - released from US prisons and returned to Cuba. It was an historic and momentous announcement. In Britain, political commentator and author Owen Jones used the opportunity to assert that Cuba has a dictatorship in his comment piece published on The Guardian website. I submitted a response to The Guardian, but have so far received no reply. I am therefore publishing it below.
US and Cuban Presidents shake hands at Mandela's funeral in South Africa, December 2013
Responding to Owen Jones on Cuba
By referring to the US ‘embargo’ as an ‘excuse’ for dictatorship in Cuba (The US embargo is disappearing; so, too, must Cuba’s dictatorship), Owen Jones reveals his ignorance about US aggression against Cuba and his narrow conceptualisation of democracy.
For over 50 years the US blockade has attempted to strangle the Cuban economy. It is not an ‘embargo’, a legal barrier to impede trade; it is a ‘blockade’, an act of war against an entire country. It is a genocidal act as defined by the 1948 Geneva Convention of 1948 on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide. Moreover, it is just one element of US strategy to effect regime change. In addition to the terrorist activity, instigated by the CIA and zealously pursued by right-wing Cuban exile groups until today, are more subtle and insidious covert operations to generate an internal opposition. These days programmes are managed by private companies which bid for contracts from USAID. The annual budget, which is approved by the US Congress runs into millions of dollars. Recent investigations by AP exposed programmes to set up and use a twitter service (Zunzuneo) to instigate civil unrest, attempts to recruit foreign students in Cuba and to infiltrate Cuba’s burgeoning hip-hop scene. These programmes target civil society, exploiting every political and cultural opening on the island. The government is right to be wary. While aspects of Cuba’s financial and economic strangulation may be loosened, there is little sign that US interference will cease.
Secondly, Jones conflates liberal parliamentarianism, a party political system which historically developed alongside economic liberalism, with democracy. Given his own writing on The Establishment, he should be expected to differentiate between voting and democracy. Real democracy means active participation in shaping society and daily life. In Cuba this happens through regular elections and national policy debate. Cuba may be a one-party state but the Communist Party does not stand in elections. There are regular local, provincial and national elections in which candidates are first nominated and then voted by their peers, either through work-place or social and cultural organisations, or to represent their neighbourhood and region. They are not subject to a party whip and are directly answerable to their constituents. The right to recall exists and is practiced. There are no career politicians; representatives continue in their employment when not ‘doing politics’ and receive their existing salaries.
In terms of national policy debate, one recent example will suffice. The 2011 ‘guidelines for updating the Cuban economy’ were subject to four months of national consultation. Almost nine million people (out of a population of just over 11 million) participated in discussions on the draft guidelines. Subsequently 68% of the guidelines were modified according to their comments. Many of the measures announced since then reflect that consultation process.
It is easy, from a position of privilege, to declare that social and economic rights are not compensation for political rights. This view is not shared by impoverished people around the world, including the millions who have benefited from Cuba’s medical internationalism, who already see Cuba as the ‘beacon’ Jones imagines it could become. The dispute is whether Cuba needs liberal parliamentarianism for Cubans to achieve more freedom.
*Helen Yaffe is author of Che Guevara: the economics of revolution (2009, Palgrave Macmillan). Her doctoral research on Cuban economic history and Che Guevara's contribution to socialist political economy was undertaken at the London School of Economics.